CONCERNING THE REFORMATION OF THE CHURCHES
(With the last paragraph Kuyper has finished his discussion of how the church here on earth goes through a process of deterioration. He now turns his attention to the reformation of the churches.)
51. What Is To Be Understood By the Reformation Of the Churches.
Reformation can be considered in a wider or narrower sense and clarity of conception requires that these divergent meanings, even though they have been discussed earlier, be correctly and sharply distinguished at the beginning of this fourth chapter.
The most commonly held and most generally used idea of reformation is the idea of restoration of truth and holiness in the place of error and sin.
In the widest sense, reformation also includes the continuous enlightenment which the church received from the Holy Spirit in the course of the ages, as well as ongoing growth in sanctification. Both, enlightenment and sanctification, must be understood as pertaining to the body of the church as well as to her individual members. All that brings the church nearer to the Fountain-of-all-good, or, vice versa, all that causes the Fountain-of-all-good to flow more generously and more purely in the stream of the church, reforms the church.
Yet seldom is the idea of reformation taken in this broad sense. Just as we, in connection with our body, commonly make distinction between normal growth and development on the one hand, and the healing of abnormal sicknesses or wounds on the other hand, so we require of the church of Christ a normal growth in enlightenment and sanctification not only but also seek the recovery of the church from a condition of sickness into which she has sunk through her own guilt and unbelief or through Satan’s malice.
That normal growth in enlightenment and sanctification is called then the continual edification and upbuilding of the church of God through the working of the means of grace. And only the healing of her wounds is called reformation.
But also in this narrower sense, the idea of reformation can be distinguished. It all depends on whether the recovery of the sickness is brought about by a restoration of strength, by cleansing the body from poison, or by a radical operation.
The first, the method which refers exclusively to a renewal of the torpid spirit of life, is both commonly called reveil or revival or awakening.
The second, the method which without radical surgery has in view the cleansing from poison, is usually called church restoration.
And the third, the method which puts the knife in the wound and is an operation, has the name of reformation in the narrowest sense.
Which of these three measures is required depends entirely upon the nature of the illness.
If the organic fabric of the church remains uninjured so that the institution of the church remains undamaged and the administration of the means of grace remains pure, then a spiritual awakening of ministers and members is the one needed. A new awakening of the Holy Spirit by a new feeling of the faithful covenant of the Lord. Reveil!
On the other hand, if the sickness has penetrated further and engulfed not only the spiritual life of the church but has also damaged the very character of the church so that “the truth stumbles on the streets,” then surely also must spiritual awakening be the point of departure. But in addition to this, one ought also to strive for the gradual betterment of the institution of the church and the taking away of error. Thus revival and church restoration.
And if, finally, the church develops so far that not only the life of grace withers and “the truth stumbles on the streets,” but also that both the extermination of error and restoration of the honor of God’s Word by the over-shepherds is permanently impossible, then the spiritual awakening, which knows that the way to gradual church reformation is impossible, must not shrink back from the most painful method of all. It ought, for the saving of life, to proceed to surgery, i.e., to strive for public reformation in the sense in which Luther did this and Calvin perfected Luther’s work.
But even though the Spirit of the Lord pushes and presses to proceed to this extreme, yet spiritual awakening must always be the point of departure.
What is from the outside to the inside produces only an appearance of life; what endures is not worked in any other way than out of the Spirit.
52. That All Good Reformation Has God For Its Author.
All human efforts in the church of Christ are vanity and less than vanity itself. The church of Christ is put into the world by God’s wonderful grace in spite of man’s sinful wrangling. It continues to exist in the world age after age in spite of man’s opposition and unfaithfulness. It has never thrived even for a moment in any other way than out of and by means of and in grace. Slime always cleaves to the church which she rather naturally picks up from the world. But as church it is always and unchangeably applicable to her in the fullest possible sense: “In Him she lives and moves and has her being.”
There is then also no more senseless undertaking than that a certain man, even though he is the most excellent, or that a certain ecclesiastical assembly, even though it is the most influential, should ever presume to say or to think: “Yes, we shall, by our influence effect a reform of this or that corrupt church!”
Such talk is unreformed pride and can never result in anything other than still further deformation. It is the preposterous notion that we have to deliver to God a pure church rather than that He graces us in His mercy with a purified church.
It is the order of the gospel turned around, a setting aside of the covenant of grace, and again, striving for reward on the basis of good works.
This goes to show that the error still lives in our hearts that a child of God can bring forth out of himself one small speck of holiness; and that error is completely conquered only when our soul rightly comes to confess before God that every speck of holiness which radiates from us is first dropped into us from the holiness of Christ—so completely that also the best which still works from our natural life is to be considered sin rather than holiness.
For this reason a pious Christian person must know enough not to try to strike a bargain with God.
A child of the kingdom who desires to proclaim the virtues of Him Who has called him out of darkness into His marvelous light knows no half-measures on this point. From him nothing but sin; everything holy from God. All that wells up from him is characterized by the lie; the Lord alone is true.
If thus reformation, as the former paragraph expressed it, is the restoration of truth and holiness in the place of the lie and sin, then it must be asked from where else that truth and holiness should come to the church than from Him alone Who has both?
God the Author of all true reformation is therefore the beginning, a truth never denied by the faithful sons of the church. From this comes their praying, their waiting, their obedience to the Lord.
This principle applies to reformation at all three levels.
From God is all awakening of the congregation from her deathly sleep. Not as if all revivals and awakenings are from Him. Alas, who does not bewail the fact that so often human maneuvering adorns itself with that beautiful name. No, by this is meant that there never, that there nowhere is restored life to the dead bones; that never and nowhere growth in sanctification is again begun after a long delay; and that never and nowhere the urge to win others for the Lord finds an open door—than in that time and in those churches in which God the Lord is pleased, in spite of the sin and unbelief and faithlessness of His people, to be merciful to that people which has turned away. And indeed He is merciful because He either sends a prophet saying: “Speak to these dead bones,” or He, without using a minister who preaches repentance, arouses the conviction of sin and unbelief in the soul and by the prick of this consciousness of sin, He spurs them on to prayers.
The ancient struggle between the Reformed and the Arminian applies also to this spiritual awakening. He who sleeps, how shall he rise unless he is wakened! How shall improvement come from the people who become spiritually worse by the day? Thus, just as the unregenerate can come out of the darkness to the light only by the work of God, so also a church which has sunk back into darkness can again look up to the light only through a gracious work of God. This new gracing of God’s with a light which they have forfeited a thousand times and finally lost is His divine and inviolable privilege.
Thus God’s people can never be admonished too much to awake from their sleep, to rouse again their first love, to perfect their holy work before God, and to awake a zeal for the saving of other souls; but woe to him who finds this glorious revival in any other place than in the Fountain of all good!
God alone multiplies faith, pours out into the heart through His Holy Spirit a warm love, gives the victory in temptation and binds the welfare of others to our souls.
This becomes the more evident to anyone who thinks that a spiritual awakening must include many more souls. Supposing that you had power over your own heart (though you do not); even then you could never penetrate savingly into another soul and you still remain deeply dependent on the free grace of your God.
But also the second degree of reformation which we call gradual renewal has God alone for its Author.
Without God a church can perhaps draw up better articles of ecclesiastical regulations and thus reform the church on paper, but this dead thing which is born out of death shall also prove completely powerless to restore even slightly a spiritual well-being to the body of the churches.
No, if church renewal is to come, then the one who draws up a better church order must record only what God is pleased to arouse by His Word and Spirit in the consciousness and intention of people.
Opportunities are necessary for church renewal, and who else grants these than the Lord our God? All sorts of persons are indispensable for church renewal, and who else creates persons than He? For church renewal there must be agreement of judgment, uniformity of purpose, desire for cooperation. And who else leads the heart as water courses than the Lord?
Above all, in the gatherings where gradual church renewal is carried out, not the majority of a certain number, but the present kingly power of Christ is the only compelling power, and the truth will never triumph except under the chairmanship of the Holy Spirit.
Thus it was at Nicea. Thus it was at Dordtrecht. That is exactly what was lacking at our Synod of the Hague. That Synod decided, (O, we cry to you, O church) to reduce her prayers to once a week.
And what finally concerns the third stage of reformation, viz., reformation through separation from the existing organizations as Luther and Calvin carried it out also here the truth applies implicitly that it is either deeply sinful or worked by God.
Terrible is the conceit of anyone who tears apart the body of Christ and misuses the church of God as a dishonorable corpse upon which the surgeon exercises his dissecting abilities.
He who dares to break the unity of the church into which he was born must be very definitely assured that he is appointed to this by God; or else he heaps upon himself a responsibility which shall make the curse penetrate into his convulsed heart.
Such a reckless deed can then only exist in the frivolous one whose lack of spiritual insight or fanatic over-excitement is clearly evident to the people of God.
And reformation by the work of surgery, by a rupture, by the severing of bonds, can and may only come among the people who fear God, when the Lord Himself visits His people, arouses men who can lead out His flock and Himself as their complete defense on the way through the wilderness.
It must not therefore be said that, yes, as a last resort all working and thus also the reformation of the churches can be ascribed to God. No, but it must be confessed that never or nowhere reformation in the church of the Lord, whether in the form of an awakening, or as gradual renewal, or as necessary separation, takes place unless the particular inworking of divine grace has begun that glorious work, continued it, and carried it to its conclusion.